Un-knowing what you know
Don’t ever not be an effective team.
Years ago, in fact, about 2003, as the culmination of a long period of research (on the religious life) I realized that the rift in the Church was worse than I had been led to believe from what we then categorized as the “conservative” Catholic writers. This was the uncomfortable moment that I “tradded,” and though I’ve never wished I could go back to not knowing what I know, the understanding hasn’t come without a cost. I’m not a Trad because I want to be. I’m a Trad because I can’t ever un-know things I now know.
I had started from a position of believing in the simplistic conservative narrative. It goes something like this: there had been a group of “liberal” prelates at the Council and afterwards who had tried to “hijack” the conciliar documents and the subsequent acts for their own purposes. This had met with quite a lot of success and things had been pretty bad until the 80s and 90s, particularly with the bad bishops under Paul VI. But then the “conservative” pope John Paul II thwarted them, “cleaning up” seminaries and appointing (mostly) “conservative” new bishops. The attempt to hijack the Barque had, in the main, failed and things were returning slowly to the natural course of the Church. There were lots of signs that this younger “conservative” movement – particularly among seminarians – was the future. New(ish) Catholic colleges were consciously self-identifying as “Ex corde ecclesiae” colleges; parishes and some whole dioceses were getting rid of the bongos and retiring the guitars and puppets and balloons in the Mass… it was all slowly returning to normal.
It sounds great. Good guys win. The trouble is that it wasn’t true. The foundation of “normal,” that is, of “orthodoxy,” was in fact a false floor. The reality of the Church was that under that false floor there was a vast edifice, a lost Church, that had been buried and nearly forgotten, and about which it was strictly forbidden to talk. Moreover, that false floor was movable.
The research I was doing was for a book that would have worked within this narrative to demonstrate that a big part of the “JPII revival” was happening in the religious life. There were, it was held, new “conservative” communities of nuns being founded that were attracting large numbers of vocations. These, so the story went, were all working against the big catastrophe that happened in the 60s that saw the almost complete collapse of the active religious life. Things like habits, prayer in common, Eucharistic adoration and a unified apostolate of teaching or nursing, were all the rage.
But it was when I looked more closely at these communities, that is, went to visit them, that this happy, fluffy-bunny narrative stopped matching the increasingly insidious and alarming reality. It’s a long story that I’ll save for another time, but suffice to say that my experiences in the pro-life movement in Canada, the US and Britain and my personal research into these “new conservative religious communities” made me understand that things were much, much… MUCH worse than I had previously been lead to believe.
It came to a head in 2003 when I went to visit a community of sisters in the northern US who have made quite a splash in the media and are supposed to be a bastion of this burgeoning new conservative US Catholic Church. What I found there… well… let’s just say that I didn’t stay for the whole long weekend, but got straight back onto a bus for Toronto the next day.
I went to see a priest I knew – who had been trying to tell me that my search was going to be in vain – and told him what I had found. He was sympathetic but asked me, “Hilary, what did you expect to find?” I told him what I had expected and to my surprise, he laughed. “You don’t imagine you’re a conservative, do you?” I was taken aback, and said something to the effect of, “What else is there to be?” He said, “You have told me that you can’t support the argument that everything is fine under John Paul II, that the Church is getting back on course. This visit has confirmed that what you have been suspecting all along is actually true. Hilary, I’m sorry to have to tell you; you’re not a conservative. You’re a Traditionalist.”
I literally didn’t know what he was talking about. He emailed me later with some things to look up on the internet and a few book recommendations. I’m a pretty quick study, and it quickly became clear that this position – the most despised and persecuted within the Church, as it turns out – is the only one that fits all the observable facts. I was quite depressed by this revelation, mainly because it meant that I was (again!) not going to be an easy fit in any of the institutions of the Church.
But it was inescapable: there was and is a vast cleavage in the Catholic Church that amounted to a de facto schism. A new and false religion was being produced, like the toxins from a bacterial infection that sickens the body, inside all the institutions of the Church, and hardly anyone had noticed. It was a hidden schism that had been nesting within the Catholic institution entirely uncorrected, since the close of Vatican II. Neo-modernism had succeeded in replacing authentic Catholic teaching to the point where to hold the doctrines of the Faith in certain areas and profess them out loud was enough to have you ostracized from this “conservative Catholic revival”. The New Modernism had, in fact, become the new conservatism.
Thirteen years is a long time and since then, particularly in the last three years, the false categories of this simplistic “conservative/liberal” narrative are rapidly becoming obsolete. The contradictions are finally becoming inescapable to a vast swathe of Catholics. And it didn’t start with Francis. John Paul II pushed along its long decline when he approved the use of female servers at Mass, and a great many of these “conservatives” in the Church (including Cardinal Ambrozic of Toronto btw,) who had been loudly calling for restoration of the norm were suddenly undermined by their darling “conservative” pope.
This blow to the carefully constructed public image of John Paul II as the “conservative” icon (thanks in large part to George Weigel’s bizarre pre-humous canonization) was a severe dent in their entire worldview and could not be encompassed. They took the only solution they could, and simply redefined orthodoxy to include whatever theological or disciplinary novelty a pope was willing to install. Papolatry or Papal Positivism, as we’ve started to call it, was born. The person of the pope, the man himself, became the new orthodoxy, a kind of semi-divine oracle who brings us either the old or the new doctrine, as the mood strikes, straight from the mouth of the “Spirit” whispering in his ear. “Altar girls” were fine, just fine, and anyone who continued to call for their abolition were extremists. Reactionaries! Rad Trads! Schismatics! etc…
The conservative capitulation in the altar girls battle was where most of the antipathy of the new conservatives towards Traditionalists began and that continues to escalate – with the brief Benedictine respite – to this day. A guilty conscience, I guess.
But slowly, the ground on which these “neoCatholics” stand was being chipped away, until the only metric left to them has been the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. As long as the pope continues to defend and uphold these, the narrative tells them, it doesn’t matter how many Korans he kisses. All that stuff is open to debate. Sex, marriage and babies is the bottom line. Except that this bottom line has been drawn in chalk on the false floor. And Francis has begun to erase it. The “conservative Catholic” position had been safe in this demarcation zone, at least until Amoris Laetitia.
Something that insular Americans often don’t know is that the “neoconservative” phenomenon, “culture warriors” as they used to be called, both Catholic and Protestant, is nearly exclusively limited to the United States. There are no “conservative Catholics” in England. Or in Italy. It is a product of the coalition in the ’80s between evangelicals and Catholics in the political pro-life movement – with all the inherent limitations thereof. It is a force that is nearly spent in American politics, as it is in the Church.
(Ironically, perhaps, hooking Catholic orthodoxy exclusively to the Church’s teaching on sexual morality has meant that they have taken precisely the line of the mainstream media: Catholicism is all about the “pelvic issues”. Neither a Catholic neoconservative nor the religion editor of the NYT has ever heard of the Social Reign of Christ the King. This large blank space where the Catholic religion used to be, is why the novusordo-apologists continue to say that they “like traditionalists” but only as long as they are the kind that personally prefer the Old Mass. Those other ones, the ones always going on about the Syllabus of Errors, are labelled “radical Catholic reactionaries,” because we challenge an entire paradigm. The good kind of traditionalist are the ones Francis was talking about, this mythological group of people who just happen to be “addicted” to a prior aesthetic. We Bad Rad Trads prefer to live in a whole different Church, that vast buried ruined edifice that no one is supposed to know about.)
It took a long time, a lot of reading, a lot of talking and thinking and visiting and learning to understand all this, but when I did, it was like being pulled out of the Matrix. The entire universe of Catholicism was, in reality, nothing at all like what I had thought. I realized that not only had I, somehow, come to a perspective in which all the puzzling pieces fit together to form a coherent, though horrifying, big picture, but that without this perspective it was going to be nearly impossible to convince anyone else. How do you tell people that things are, indeed, much worse than even their darkest imaginings and, more importantly, aren’t getting better? I figured we were going to need an act of God for that. (You can see where this is going, right?)
There are a lot of Trad-converts who would certainly rather not know what we know. It is damned uncomfortable, and it meant too that a great many doors were going to be closed to me forever – particularly vocational doors, which was very hard to bear. But that simply was where the evidence led. There was no way around it. Only the Real counts, even if it means you can’t ever, ever have the one thing you’ve wanted all your life. Even if it means you’re going to be going in a direction in life, and for the rest of your life, that you never, ever would have chosen for yourself. But it is why I and my Traditionalist friends are able to understand what is going on now.
It is the reason, for instance, we can read this fulsome praise of Amoris Laetitia and Pope Francis by Fr. Frank Pavone (one of the neo-conservatives’ heroes) and not be shocked, not surprised (though faintly nauseated, admittedly…)
…Amoris Laetitia is a timely and loving exhortation for families towards genuine charity that begins within the nuclear family. It can be described as a new road-map for a culture that has taken a sad and tragic detour.”
This is, of course, very precisely a recitation of the neoconservative Catholic narrative that rests on two important points: the pope is always and can only be the champion of orthodoxy no matter what he says or does, and the first, last and middle-bit concern of Catholics is always and only on the pelvic issues. Nothing else, including the pope’s habitual blasphemies against Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Church, is important.
The plain fact that Francis has, as the somewhat more savvy Voice of the Family has said, gravely undermined the Church’s teaching on the family seems not to be of any moment whatever. Only the narrative matters.
Yes, there’s a paragraph in AL, 83, that opposes abortion. But this includes a patently false assertion that Catholics are obliged to oppose the death penalty.
And it is preceded by this:
“37. We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life.”
… a blatant insult not only to the pro-life people who have carried on the battle against abortion for all these decades, but to John Paul II, the hero of the American conservative pro-lifers, whose pontificate (with the back-up of Cardinal Ratzinger in the CDF) was very much the source of the Catholic pro-lifer’s focus on “doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues”. It’s a dig, a typically Franciscan dig, veiled and self-congratulatory, against the life work of someone like Fr. Pavone. Another typical Franciscan straw man and false dichotomy; setting up a focus on “doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues” as somehow being opposed to “openness to grace”.
The neoconservative narrative, however, is going to be facing a lot more of the stuff it can’t encompass, when even the advanced Stockholm Syndrome of people like Frank Pavone is going to be stretched to its limits.
Here’s a fun little story about Cardinal Muller, the increasingly marginalized head of the CDF, who has written a book and wanted to present it in Madrid.
In August last year, Francis appointed Carlos Osoro Sierra as the new Archbishop of Madrid, a choice that was touted by the press as a “new direction” for the Spanish episcopate. Osoro is known for reciting Francisims, including his desire for a “Church that goes out” instead of being “self-absorbed…” Etc. (If anyone can tell me what this blither actually means, either to them in their brains or objectively, let me know…) He is seen as an about-face for the see of Madrid from his Ratzingerian predecessor.
Fast-foward to Thursday, and that same Archbishop Osoro has denounced the book and the head of the CDF because they are “against the pope.”
The difficulty, you see, is that Cardinal Muller has said in his book that “Mercy never means a waiver of the commandments of God,” a simple fact and a forthright expression of basic catechism. Hardly what you would need a PhD for, or a Cardinal or a head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But it’s “against the pope,” according to one of Francis’ own hand-picked favourites.
Giuseppe Nardi tells us that the book is about the current situation in the Church. Muller was scheduled to present it this week at the Catholic University of San Dámaso, but the archbishop stopped it. Infovaticana reports that the Archbishop said he wanted “nothing to do with a book against the pope”. The presentation has been moved to a university owned by the Legionaries of Christ.
The facade of unity, one that irritated me for years because of its obvious falsity, is finally falling irrevocably into ruins. Cardinal Muller is hardly being theologically controversial when he says that God’s mercy and His law are not opposed. But to do so, to state this simple truth of the Catholic faith, is now not only controversial, it is anathema. Because it is “against the pope.”
The fact that the pope is against the Faith is irrelevant. Cardinal Muller has been loudly defending these basic catechetical truths from Francis’ own subordinates, Marx and his merry band of simoniac heretics in Germany, who have just as loudly declared that they will go into schism if need be to get what they want. And what has Francis done? He has made Cardinal Marx a trusted member of his inner circle, made sure that he gets the spotlight at the Synods – called at the behest of the German bishops.
If Muller is “against the pope,” it is because the pope is against the Faith. The schism that we have been pretending did not exist, is finally becoming so evident, so many are falling into the gulf and hitting the rocky bottom, that it can no longer be wished away. Neo-Catholics are going to have to either revamp their ideology to conform with the new Franciscan paradigm – which will be fine, since their ideology is simply “the pope,” – or if they have retained a shred of Catholicity, they are going to have to start facing some uncomfortable facts about the condition of the Church. The middle ground on which they have been standing, rooted, since the 80s, is gone.